Working on Holidays: The New Class Divide?

Shoppers may appreciate the extra hours, but what about all the people who will have to end their Thanksgiving meal, or forgo it altogether, in order to man the cashiers and stock the shelves?

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Chris Hondros / Getty Images

An employee restocks a shelf at a Walmart Supercenter in Troy, Ohio

As the holiday season gets underway, I think back to my childhood and the times enjoyed with my family. We were lucky. My immigrant parents realized the American Dream, and on the fourth Thursday of every November we had much to be thankful for. Even if my dad sometimes wasn’t there because he had to work, we didn’t mind. As a doctor, he and his fellow health care professionals knew that sickness takes no holiday. Policemen and firemen, plumbers and 911 operators: all kinds of Americans know well the sacrifices and pride that comes with providing essential services.

But while the right to one’s health and safety may be inalienable, the right to shop is not. Yet Walmart recently announced that it would open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day; Target and Toys “R” Us followed suit, with plans to open at 9 p.m. They are hardly alone. Gap Inc. stores (Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic) will be open Thanksgiving Day, as will Sears and Kmart. Shoppers may appreciate the extra hours, but what about all the people who will have to end their Thanksgiving meal, or forgo it altogether, in order to man the cashiers and stock the shelves?

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Working on holidays has always presented something of a class divide. From the 1870s through the 1920s, middle- and upper-class Americans often lived with “the help” — mostly women of color whose job it was to cook and clean and care for others, day and night. While shows like Downton Abbey seek to give life to servants, they also sanitize what was a brutal, backbreaking existence. It was common for a housemaid’s day to begin well before the family rose and extend until after they retired for the evening. They did so seven days a week; working more than 80 hours a week — more than the 65 hours worked by most factory workers at the time. While we often imagine that these women were young and single, Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s research on such care providers has shown how over 30% of them were married, many with children. As they toiled for families not their own, they left their children, parents, siblings and husbands behind. November and December was no doubt one of the hardest times of the year, and their own families felt their absence.

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The labor movement was central to changing this sorry state of affairs (though labor laws almost never cover domestic workers). Unions raised wages, lowered hours, instituted worker protections, guaranteed a minimum wage and secured holidays off for workers. Those who did have to work on national holidays were guaranteed overtime pay. As Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld have shown, when unions were strong, such benefits even extended to nonunionized workers. But as unions have declined, part-time work has increased. And this has meant lower wages and greater uncertainty. Working at $11 an hour for 25 hours a week means making $14,300 a year. For most retail workers, that’s one of the better jobs available. And still, it’s a job without health insurance, or a retirement plan, with constant scheduling changes that make it hard to take additional employment. Most of these workers wish they could work more, but employers would rather hire other part-timers. So when the boss says, “Can you work Thanksgiving?” workers have no real choice but to be “willing.”

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Today, working on holidays carries no guarantee of extra pay, and not working can mean losing one’s job. Some workers are fighting back; Walmart employees have planned over 1,000 Black Friday strikes because of stagnant wages and health care premiums that will soon triple. Americans have a choice of helping these workers regain the protections, or walking past them in order to shop for more things. And that is the irony to the trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving. On the same day that we give thanks for all we have, why must we also rush out to buy more? Observers might say, “It’s just the logic of the market!” But the logic of the market is not some mystical process. It is the result of the decisions that we make. People work on Thursday so we can be thankful for all that we have. Perhaps it’s time for shopping moratoriums so that everyone can give thanks, instead of just those who have more to be thankful for.

56 comments
T.P.Chia
T.P.Chia

Professor Shamus Khan has pointed out another aspect of inequality in American society--the exploitation of workers in the retail business.  However, this phenomenon cannot be described as a "new class divide".  There is nothing wrong with working on holidays, and working on holidays does not necessarily lower or reduce a person.  The main problem is whether the workers are treated fairly in terms of remuneration and fringe benifits.   In a capitalist economy, it takes labor unions or legislations to fight for or protect the legitimate interests of the workers.  

It would be nice for everyone to enjoy a Thanksgiving holiday--but it is simply against the laws of business.  Nor is it necessary to make Thanksgiving a no-business day.  It is sentimental and unrealistic to argue that to enjoy a Thanksgiving holiday is our right. The right to a holiday is by no means inalienable.

Nothing_To_Say
Nothing_To_Say

Hmm...!!! I don't know...I founded an IT consulting firm few years ago and I've been working almost 16 hours/day ever since...I even forgot the meaning of the word holidays...but then again, I wouldn't say that I'm not making good money....I also hope I can make enough money to retire sooner rather than later....

I guess theres is also a huge different between doing it by choice and been pressured to do so...

edwardsmythe1970
edwardsmythe1970

If you don't like working at Wal-Mart, put down the bong, finish college, and get some actual skills that people will pay for.  Otherwise, stop complianing and bag my groceries (not that I shop at Wal-Mart).  It's not a class divide, it's an education/skills/attitude divide, which people can overcome if they choose to.

katnyx
katnyx

These people do have jobs, and they have a right to want to spend Thanksgiving with their families.  Stores like Walmart tout 'family values' and 'home town' feelings yet are willing to pull their employees in on Thursday night so they can make more money.  We are not talking about the skeleton crew they would normally have at night, but pulling in extra people for this purpose alone.  And please leave hospital workers, police and firefighters out of this.  All of us went into our professions knowing we would be working holidays, and we are not here so someone can 'get a good deal' at the expense of someone elses holiday.

FnB_guy
FnB_guy

After reading the majority of these comments I realize that many people are willing participants in both sides of this issue. There are people who are "happy" to be working on Thanksgiving because the alternative (unemployment) is far more difficult to handle.

There are also those people who are "happy" to be shopping on Thanksgiving or Black Friday because they want to get "deals." By shopping they are reinforcing the retailers decision to open early and on THanksgiving.

I want to point out that there is one "class" of employee that has been largely overlooked in this article and subsequent comments, who represents one of the largest employee communities, AND, who typically work on ALL major holidays, the hospitality employee, servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, managers etc. Hospitality employees realize that they are working while most people are playing and they have known this forever. Working on a holiday is taken for granted because that is what this industry is all about. It baffles me that there is such an uproar about other employee groups having to work on holidays. If you business caters to people using your service or buying your product on a holiday (like retail), then get ready to work on holidays and take the time to celebrate the holiday when you are not working.

As some have pointed out, the holiday is important for us to remember friends and family, however, the actual day should not determine whether we do that "remembering."

Dinopirate
Dinopirate

I need to point out something here that people seem to be missing. The workers of Walmart don't make enough to sustain themselves. Many are on food stamps. If a worker gets injured, they have to rely on taxpayer money to fix them.

SO WHAT? You say. So what, why, those workers probably dropped out in the 10th grade! They should work two jobs and get an education.... or something to that effect.

Look, some people just are not capable of more than Walmart work. And just because of that, they are supposed to writhe in a gutter if they break an arm?

Because of the Walton's greed, WE THE TAXPAYER pay for the right to live in a humane society. How about we ask those fat cats to actually take care of their own? Because if they don't we have two choices; 1. Pay for it NOW, which is what we are doing anyway, or 2. Live in the kind of country where we are fine with people who are injured or very ill just being in pain or dying.

Choice is yours, people.

JohnGates
JohnGates

Yeah, I have to admit, whining about working holidays doesn't catch much sympathy from me. Especially when I'm working a 16 hour shift on Thanksgiving myself. Then again, I'm probably making a lot more money than the average Walmart employee, but still I agree with many of the comments I've seen. Many people work holiday's...Not just minimum wage workers.

On a slightly different note: I wonder how long it will be before they back this black Friday thing up to some day in July!  I suppose as long as people keep coming out in droves to shop till they drop there will be no end in sight, and before long we'll be hearing Christmas music the day after Independence day. heh

ChHoffman
ChHoffman

It's not class divide; it's that society never shuts down. We have full generals who are on duty on Tksgvg; we have top doctors whose shifts at hospitals keep them from indulging in artery-clogging; and we have up-and-coming retail execs who jump at the chance to "make their bones" running the black Friday hullaballoo.

catsmile33
catsmile33

geeezzz... this is a pathetic article... CLASS warfare again?  seriously?  So what do you call all the doctors, soldiers, stadium workers, firemen, police, FBI/CIA, cable company employees, phone company employees, etc that have been working every holiday for as long as I remember.  Wow - talk about feeling entitled... the least educated worker feels they are due to sit at home guaranteed, while just about all other major professions have to work, or at least be on-call to work.  Amazing.

ShawnMize
ShawnMize

Its a entry level posistion so quit bitching and get back to work

MarkD
MarkD

What does it matter, and what's the big deal? Walmart is open 24/7 anyhow. The only time they close is 6 AM to 12-Midnight on Christmas day. That's it. So why are these people making such a big deal?

extasyjones
extasyjones

Unions have NOT outlived their usefulness. However, their power is often abused. All I can say is there is a point where it becomes impractical (or, at least, less feasible) to maintain a union.

I have worked on both sides of the "union fence". Once I was told (very seriously) by a steward, "Slow down, we're paid by the hour". While I can appreciate that, that type of abuse can easily lead to the end of unions.

There must be a happy medium.

jalangaya
jalangaya

In Obama's economy, anyone who has a job is very fortunate. Who can afford to squawk about working holidays? Just be happy if you can work any day.

BrendaVaranasi
BrendaVaranasi

I wish I could work this holiday-been out of work for 5 months, would work today if I could!

notsacredh
notsacredh

I go out 4-12 today. I work 4-12 on Christmas Eve and 8-4 on Christmas Day. I work 12-8 on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. We celebrate the holidays when we get the chance. The day defore, the day after, it doesn't matter. The day we can get together is the day we celebrate the holiday. We ate early today. Friends and family couldn't make it here until later this afternoon. I'll be at work. I work outside year round. The actual holidays are just a date on the calendar. When we have the chance to celebrate them together is the real holiday for us. My wife's birthday is 5 days after mine. We split the difference and celebrate them both together. I'm lucky. I get paid double time for working the holidays. The extra money allows us to have a better Christmas...whenever we celebrate it.

czydiamond
czydiamond

As a person who always has had to work holidays I have come to hate "holidays".  You always hear how wonderful the holidays are for everyone, but for people who have to work a holiday just means an especially hard day at work along with the feeling that you are not getting what everyone else is getting. 

KenSharp
KenSharp

The author misses a large number of employers and employees that work this and every holiday. These small business owners/employees would fall into the upper portion of this phony class division by income but are by no means wealthy because their income is closely tied to their businesses and must be reinvested. In my city Toledo Ohio, the number of big box stores are dwarfed compared to these mom and pops that serve their communities every day including holidays. The focus is always on retail, but those will dwindle in the coming years as more and more we shop online, even while eating holiday meals. Then it will be expeditors and logistics workers, like my sister who will and always have spent some portion of their holidays working. I worked a number of years in the bar industry and we were open 365 days a year. I spent some time with family and then at work every holiday. My choice. Those who find it offensive, don't shop those days-anywhere. Make sure you have gas and groceries the day before. Don't meet friends after in your local pub. If you have plumbing, electrical, auto or other problems put them off a day so that you can be comfortable with your principles. But don't force your opinions, as that is all they are, on the rest of us. Diversity is what makes us great. Get off the bogus class warfare and take care of your own life.    

Pest80321373
Pest80321373

"Health care premiums that will soon triple." Now why on earth is this happening? I thought Obamacare was free...

sonimfan
sonimfan

Many well paid people are on call 24/7 with their company contacting them via their smartphones.  It would be more accurate to talk about the class divide between those who must work by going to the office and those who can work at home while watching football.

Babydog
Babydog

$11.00/hour?  That's pretty good, almost 1 1/2 times what my husband will be paid to forgo his Thanksgiving meal with our family, in order to preserve his close to minimum wage job.  He has a Business degree from MIT, and this is all he can find for work.  At least my employer respects the fact that people need to celebrate their Holidays, to be together with their families.  I'm lucky that I can join the other members of my family who won't have to work on the holiday.  And we won't be doing ANY shopping Thursday.

darmyman
darmyman

Class issue?? Huh, you are reaching here a bit to be in step with a talking point you want to share or an either an apparent belief system you have. I disagree 100% with the decision of retailers to be open to the public on Thanksgiving. This is wrong, it is a national holiday and should be kept that way. Having said that, my wife worked at Kmart for years until the closed the store in our city. I don't remember a Thanksgiving she did not work 5 to close prepping for Black Friday. I get that.

StaceyO
StaceyO

How on Earth is this a class issue??

Hospitals, manufacturers, public safety departments, public works departments, public transportation departments, airlines, airports, radio and television broadcast stations, entertainment companies, theme parks, zoos, animal shelters, managed care facilities, utility companies, insurance claim offices, pharmacies, FOOTBALL STADIUMS, FOOTBALL FRANCHISES...

These are all employers who have employees that have to work holidays. Don't string up the retailers for something that's already been done a hundred times. All those people complaining about retailers will be sitting home on their couch watching a football game that takes hundreds of employees to run and broadcast to their TV. Hypocrites. 

John
John

In the 60's when I was a poor college student working in the summer to to pay for tuition and room and board, the union came and shook me down for $10 a week.  As a reward for the $10 a week they let me continue working.  I was only clearing about $60 a week before they got their cut.    Even back in the 60's that didn't cover very much of my expenses, so I had to borrow the rest.  At least it only took me about 5 years to pay it back.  And I didn't have to work on the 4th of July.

But because of the size of the bribe I had to pay to work, I still detest unions.

To those of you who have to work on holidays, you have my condolences, but I can't stand crowds so you won't see me or my money.

MichaelKing
MichaelKing

That was the way Thanksgiving always was before we commercialized just about everything into a merchandising excuse ... just a few decades ago.  A quiet day with family, football and the kids is only one day a year - there are 360+ other days available to hoard things.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are about people and love, not things - especially things we really don't need and certainly things that will be there a day later.  The people won't be there a day later - how happy can you be hugging merchandise?

FatX101
FatX101

It's about money over time with friends and family.  Let's do something to change that mentality.  Avoid Wal-Mart!  And on Friday, shop at a small business (mom &pop).  

vstillwell
vstillwell

If you're shopping on Thursday, you are pathetic. If you try and justify this black Thursday stupidity with some BS economic argument, you are pathetic and a moron wrapped in a lame bundle of humanity. 

Martian_14
Martian_14

Class divide???? 

These politically correct leftists think that everything is free and according to their ideology to work is to sin because the State shall always provide, right?

What the columnist want people to do? To stop buying so that everyone can go live happily in a commune as simpleton peasants? The unions are destroying America industry and the economy. Have we become a country of beggars, weak persons?

What is happening to this country? What is happening to Time?

The columnist as a snob professor who probably does not know the meaning of  "to work", "to create jobs", "to employ people", "to make the economy work"....Probably he spends most of his time writing nonsense about a subject he knows nothing.

Dinopirate
Dinopirate

Well, there's the difference. Walmart workers are working on a holiday for the same low wage. Makes a BIG difference when it can actually sustain you.

Ed167
Ed167

@MarkD The big deal is not that Walmart makes them work on Thanksgiving -- although for many who did not have to do so before it is a hardship. The big deal is that Walmart (and other retailers) cut workers down to part-time so they can avoid paying benefits, and they juggle the hours around so the worker cannot find another job to supplement the lousy pay.If the retail companies treated their employees as part of the company -- as opposed to expendable part-time help -- then working on Thanksgiving would be a minor inconvenience that I'm sure most of the employees would accept without complaint.

RevaPearlston
RevaPearlston

@jalangaya It's time for a reality check, and it starts with a reminder of the events of September 2008.  That was Dubya and his R cronies who screwed the world with their lack of interest in regulating hucksters such as those on Wall St.

notsacredh
notsacredh

Btw, I LOVE the holidays. They're in your heart, not on the calendar.

Ed167
Ed167

@Pest80321373 Obamacare DOES cost, but the primary reason health care premiums are skyrocketing is that they have been for two decades -- since long before Obama started politics.  In the Bush years, my premiums went up about 15% a year (which translates to doubling every five years).  Since Obama took office, they have only risen about 10% per year -- still bad, but not as bad.

Is the drop due to Obama?  Maybe, maybe not -- but the fact that they're still going up sure isn't because of him.

Sean_C2
Sean_C2

@Pest80321373 If you thought that, you're not paying attention, but more likely you're just being disingenuous.  The Affordable Care Act is a private-sector remedy developed by Republicans; it mandates and, for lower-income individuals, subsidizes the purchase of private insurance.  It will likely work to keep costs down, but not nearly as much as greater public involvement would, as it has in other countries.

RevaPearlston
RevaPearlston

@StaceyO Any agency/department/company involved in public safety, public health, public transportation are necessary on a 24/7 basis.  Entertainment/news media are staffed by less experienced (and therefore less tenure) personnel, as are zoos, etc.  

Please notices that I have NOT mentioned manufacturers, insurance claims offices (where you're likely to get less experienced adjusters), retail establishments of all sizes, and sports venues.  None of them are mandatory for public healthy and safety.

This is the difference that you seem not to want to understand.  Why not?

vstillwell
vstillwell

@StaceyO People who work at hospitals, public safety departments, etc. get paid time and a half and more to work on holidays. Plus those workers have generous benefits packages. Most manufactures are closed on the holidays. People in retail get minimum wage and no benefits. Tax payers end up subsidizing large retailers workers because they give them so little. The county I live in has an Amazon fulfillment center in it. Amazon employs very few people directly. Amazon mostly uses workers through staffing agencies. These workers get paid little and have no benefits. I have to pay high property taxes because Amazon pays no taxes here. Imagine that! I help subsidize Amazon shareholders and the cheap lazy hordes who shop on Amazon. 

CharlesRanier
CharlesRanier

@MichaelKing THIS. The people who are saying "oh it's just a calendar, you can celebrate it any day" are the reasons the employers can get away with this. How about, "you can go SHOPPING any day." 

No one ever died saying "I wish I'd spent more time at work away from my family"

Sean_C2
Sean_C2

@Martian_14 Not that this will likely mean anything to you as it contradicts your dogma, but the decline of American industry is parallel to the decline of the American union movement.  The private sector has fewer unionized workers now than at any point since the New Deal.  Not coincidentally, this has led to wage stagnation and decline among American workers, as unions were crucial to boosting workers' wages.

If there was any basis to what you were asserting, American industry would be stronger than ever with the decline of unions, but that is surprisingly not the case.

vstillwell
vstillwell

@Martian_14 The economy would work just fine without dip$hit$s like you shopping on Thursday. 

catsmile33
catsmile33

@Ed167 @MarkD Thank Obama and the liberal healthcare law for that one.....   They can't afford the option to pay the healthcare on these low wage earners, and they can't afford the fines on these low wage earners.  The Normal people in economics SAID this would happen - as the average walmart shopper can't afford to pay the increase in the cost of the products it would take to absorb the healthcare cost increases...  

skadumdums
skadumdums

@RevaPearlston @jalangaya If you care to check the facts, "Dubya" put more regulators into place than any other president, in fact, as a quick lesson go look up who signed the bill that made banks "Too Big To fail".  It's called the repealing of the Glass-Stegall act, I figure I had to name it since someone like you who clearly only reads headlines without any research would have no idea where to actually find it.

Ed167
Ed167

@RevaPearlston @jalangaya Bush, Bush, Bush -- is that the best you can do?  From all the complaining, you'd think Bush REALLY messed up the U.S. economy or something... oh, wait -- he did.

MarkD
MarkD

@RevaPearlston @StaceyO What does it matter, and what's the big deal? Walmart is open 24/7 anyhow. The only time they close is 6 AM to 12-Midnight on Christmas day. That's it. So why are these people making such a big deal?

catsmile33
catsmile33

@vstillwell @StaceyO Excuse me - but you are flat out wrong on the way health workers, etc get paid.  The walmart payscale and health plan is better than mine!  I have had to work every holiday - so does my sister who works for a stadium as that is when there is a game played.  NO ONE feels sorry for these whiners... If they don't like their job - move over - there are plenty of us that would like to have it!

ks521
ks521

@vstillwell @StaceyO What you may not realize is many communities have have had their budgets cut to the extent that public safety and fire/ambulance services are on a volunteer basis. Even those who employ paid professionals in many cases give those employees the holiday off, and bring in volunteers to work holidays. They are not getting paid "time and a half", or even paid at all. And city employees rarely receive "generous benefits packages" to begin with. I can't remember a time when both of my parents had a holiday off at the same time, many holidays they were both working, occasionally paid, mostly volunteer. There are people who willingly (and in most cases gladly) give up their holiday so that you and your family can remain safe...and in some cases alive. 

RevaPearlston
RevaPearlston

@vstillwell @StaceyO Just a hnote about Amazon.  There are items that they carry or purvey to the public that are difficult to impossible to find elsewhere.  Shopping there for such items (including a really good and sturdy book holder) isn't about being cheap or lazy but about necessity.

Ed167
Ed167

@CharlesRanier @MichaelKing Actually, some do say that -- but I get your point.  When we (rarely) shop on holidays we do so as a family outing of sorts -- we don't shop for such stuff often, so it's kind of fun.

cmiller09
cmiller09

@catsmile33 @Ed167 @MarkD It has nothing to do with Obama, geez, Walmart has been doing the part time so they dont have to pay medical since back in the Bush days, when i was a teen working there...Its Walmart's fault, get over it..The weather sucked today, so i guess i can blame that on Obama too...

CharlesRanier
CharlesRanier

@MarkD did you get to spend a national holiday with your family? if so, that's the big deal.